McAuliffe’s proposed budget seeks boost for mental health, drug treatments

Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s proposed budget for 2019-2020, if passed, would significantly increase funding for treatment of substance abuse and mental health problems that the state has struggled to control.

According to the proposed budget, community services boards — state-funded organizations that provide regional-level mental health and substance abuse services — would all receive extra funds so that they can quickly provide help to people who come in seeking mental health care. In addition, the budget calls for more funding for drug courts and housing for people with substance abuse disorders.

Mike Elwell, the CEO of the Northwestern Community Services Board in Winchester, praised the proposal, saying that the extra funds would help the organization better serve people who have mental health or substance abuse problems.

“I haven’t talked to anybody who isn’t happy about it, who doesn’t think that it’s a good thing,” Elwell said. “One of the biggest complaints is it’s a lot of stuff to do in a very short period of time.”

The proposed budget ties in with legislation that the Virginia House of Delegates passed earlier this year. Under that legislation, community services boards are required to provide same-day mental health care services by July 1, 2019.

That would dramatically impact how quickly people are able to receive mental health care treatment through community services boards.

“Right now, when a person calls up Northwestern, it takes an average of 42 days to get them into treatment,” Elwell said. “Which is really not acceptable.”

And that 42-day period is typical, Elwell said, of community services boards across the state.

“And that’s one of the reasons why they’re doing this,” Elwell said of the proposal. “Because we don’t have a tremendous amount of resources, because it’s a publicly-funded system.”

Because of the earlier legislation, Elwell said that he was not particularly surprised by the proposed funding for same-day mental health care services. But he was surprised, he said, by part of the proposal that calls for replacing $10 million in grant funding for medication-assisted treatment with general funds from the state.

That would give community services boards more certainty, he said, when they allocate funds to treat people with a substance abuse disorder. Under a grant system, Elwell said, the community services board had one year of guaranteed funding.

“We didn’t hear whether or not they were going to be sustained over the several years,” Elwell said. “And so it was a situation we felt kind of nervous about. Because once you start treatment, especially with people with addictions, you can’t really quit in the middle of that.”

Because the community services board’s contract with the Commonwealth of Virginia restricts money to the organization specifically for medication-assisted treatment, the shift in funding structure allows the agency to know how much money it has to spend on substance-abuse treatment each year.

The proposed budget also calls for $2.5 million in funds to provide permanent housing for pregnant women who have a substance abuse disorder. That proposal, Elwell said, is an important effort that would provide substance-abuse treatment for part of the population while keeping them out of jails and mental health hospitals.

Currently, a large number of people who are in jails and mental health institutions have substance abuse problems.

“We can provide all of the treatment that we can on an individual but if they don’t have stable, permanent housing, they’re going to flounder all over the place,” Elwell said. “So that’s the key to keeping people out of hospitals, out of the jail, out of being homeless.”